Obama opposes withholding funds to the PA

US seeks to reverse congressional decision; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: This is a critical time, not a time to withhold those funds.

Netanyahu meets Panetta 311 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Netanyahu meets Panetta 311
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attacked a Congressional decision to withhold $200 million in civic financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority during a Monday press conference.
“The administration [of US President Barack Obama] opposes holding these funds from the Palestinians. This is a critical time and it is not a time to withhold those funds,” he told reporters during a press conference he held with Defense Minister Ehud Barak shortly after landing in Israel.
The funds had been approved by Congress as part of its fiscal 2011 budget which granted the Palestinians $400 million in civic assistance and $1.5 billion for security needs.
Then in August the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), placed a hold on $200 million in civic assistance out of that sum, when it became clear the PA planned to seek unilateral statehood at the UN. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations also placed a hold on the funds. The measure was publicized only this weekend by the British newspaper The Independent.
Panetta’s comments mark the first high-level US response to the measure. The money in question was earmarked for civic, humanitarian and infrastructure projects. Funding for Palestinian security forces and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency have not been impacted as of yet. Among the agencies hard hit by the “hold” is USAID.
An American official told The Jerusalem Post that “our assistance to the Palestinian people is an essential part of the US commitment to a negotiated two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis, promoting a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
“We are working with the Congress to remove congressional holds blocking the release of [fiscal 2011] assistance for the Palestinians,” the official said.
“The lifting of the holds is necessary for programs to continue as planned. Ongoing programs will continue until funds are exhausted,” he said.
According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Panetta told the PA leadership when he met with them in Ramallah on Monday that Washington was making big efforts to change Congress’s decision to suspend financial aid to the Palestinians.
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
Mohammed Shtayyeh, member of the Fatah Central Committee and a close aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said that the Arab and Islamic countries have expressed readiness to compensate the Palestinians for the loss of Western aid.
He said that since the establishment of the PA in 1994, the US has given the PA a total of $2.4 billion - $150m. a year.
In addition, the Americans have given the Palestinians another $1b. in aid through non-governmental organizations during the same period, he added.
Shtayyeh said the US Administration was not bound by Congress’s decisions and could “bypass” the legislature, as was the case in 2006. Then, Congress decided to suspend financial aid after the formation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government.
According to Shtayyeh, the EU’s Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton has assured Abbas that the EU would seek to fulfill all its financial obligations to the Palestinians.
He quoted Ashton as saying that the EU would not link the aid to the PA leadership’s decision to apply for full membership in the UN.
A number of US representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle, however, have been very firm in their determination to block funding to the PA – particularly in the fiscal year 2012, should it continue to pursue unilateral statehood.
After Abbas formally requested UN membership on September 23 in New York, Ros- Lehtinen said: “Abu Mazen’s speech further demonstrated that the Palestinian leadership is not a partner for peace. There must be consequences for Palestinian and UN actions that undermine any hope for true and lasting peace.”
In June, the Senate approved Resolution 185, which warned that Palestinian efforts to gain recognition of a state outside of direct negotiations would have implications for continued US aid.
Representative Kay Granger (R-Texas) who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations and committee member Nita Lowey (D-New York) both warned Abbas this summer that such a move would occur if he continued to pursue unilateral statehood.
Abbas told Panetta that the Palestinians are prepared to return to the negotiating table if Israel stops construction in the settlements and accepts the pre-1967 lines as the basis for a two-state solution.
It’s a stance he has held to for the last year. Israel has refused to cede to his demand and insisted that negotiations be resumed without pre-conditions.
On Sunday Israel accepted a proposal by the Quartet to relaunch talks within 30 days with the goal of reaching a final-status solution by December 2012. The Palestinians have yet to agree to the Quartet proposal.
Erekat, who attended the meeting in Ramallah between Abbas and the US Secretary of Defense, said that Panetta carried “clear messages” to the Palestinians. Erekat said that Panetta affirmed Obama’s commitment to the two-state solution.
The Palestinian negotiator quoted Panetta as saying that Obama considers the establishment of a Palestinian state as a Palestinian, Israeli and American interest.
“The US Secretary of Defense said that the US sees that the most appropriate way is the resumption of the peace talks, and the recent Quartet proposal provides a mechanism for this,” Erekat told the Bethlehembased Ma’an News Agency.
Abbas, for his part, told Panetta that he agrees to the Quartet proposal on the condition that Israel halt settlement activity, including Jewish building in east Jerusalem.
Abbas said that Netanyahu should assume responsibility and meet these conditions, Erekat added.
Meanwhile, Nimer Hammad, a top adviser to Abbas, reiterated the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He said that if US financial aid to the Palestinians was conditioned on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “we won’t do so at all.”